Fiona was raised Catholic and my parents were the kind of flaky Buddhists only wealthy white people can be. We were surrounded by a lot of ideology and ritual that broke down as we each entered adulthood. By the time Fiona and I met religion had become a tragic and ridiculous thing to us both. It was one of the two things we immediately had in common. The other was our dogs. Fiona had a Bernese named Abby and I had Ollie, my fierce little Border Terrier. We fell in love at the dog park, all of us, and were living together in a year.
Abby and Ollie
Our first year together Abby was 11, but in good health. She still loved to play, to fetch, still rolled over on her back for you, twisting and turning and making gleeful grunts. She was in many ways an eternal kid. She got sick when she was 14, went quickly, and with heartbreaking grace.
Ollie took it worst. He’d become very protective of her. Abby was a friendly dog, but also a solitary one. She liked to play on her own, but had the kind of energy that attracted the attention of other dogs. Ollie guarded her, keeping other dogs from taking her ball or annoying her. At night he slept curled up next to her. He was a devoted friend who asked for nothing in return and usually got it.
Fiona and I agreed though that there was something being communicated between them. They were friends in a proper, formal, almost British way, and when Abby left us it was Ollie who wailed the loudest. Who sulked for weeks. Who wouldn’t eat. At the park he kept close to us and didn’t play.
Ollie and Bernice
Six months after Abby died Fiona wanted another Bernese. We got a 16 week old puppy and named her Bernice, but called her Bea. Ollie was a good big brother, but didn’t have the kind of enthusiasm he’d had with Abby. There was a sense of duty to making sure Bea was okay, where with Abby he’d always seemed honored to be her protector. He looked up to Abby, but looked after Bea.
Early on Ollie started confiscating Abby’s old toys if Bea got a hold of them. He’d stash them away. I’d find them stuck in various cracks and crevices. Bea took it in stride. She was as happy with a piece of stick as with the most expensive toy. If Ollie got grumpy about anything Bea would just pick something else to play with.
It wasn’t long before his little sister was much larger than he was. Bea wasn’t quite as solitary as Abby had been, but Ollie was the only dog she tried hard to please. The same sort of appreciative tolerance Abby had shown Ollie he now had for Bea. Their dynamic became a daily meditation for Fiona and me.
Ollie wakes first. He let’s me know he’s awake by moving from my feet to my chest. He faces me and watches, panting happily until I rub his head. When I do, he gives me a few cheerful licks. I get out of bed and he trots over to Bea, who at 90 pounds takes up most of the bottom of our California King. She’s a lazy riser and gets a vigorous barrage of licking from Ollie until she is up. As soon as she’s alert she’s in Ollie’s face, wanting to play. He doesn’t. He gives her corrective little headbutts and vocalizations and marches her outside with me to use the bathroom.
I put out food for them both, but Ollie likes to find a bright spot to sun himself. Bea scarfs her food immediately and then noses Ollie’s little bowl across the porch to him. He behaves as if he has no interest and continues to lounge. Bea barks at him playfully, her tail wags like mad, she bows to Ollie, and keeps pushing his bowl towards him until it is essentially on him. He ignores it all until Bea gives up and goes to sulk a few feet away. He then gets up, stretches, and casually eats his breakfast. If she advances on him he walks away from his food.
Fiona usually takes them to the park. Bea is always excited as soon as she sees a ball in Fiona’s hand. Ollie isn’t into toys much. In the same way that Bea tries to feed Ollie she also tries to get him to play. Fiona throws the ball, Bea retrieves it, but brings it back to Ollie. He looks away and Bea picks it up and plops it down in front of him again and again and again. Fiona eventually picks up the ball and throws it and the whole process starts over.
We don’t know what to make of most of their behavior. Their relationship is complicated and burdened with history. Despite being the same breed it’s not Bea we see Abby in, but Ollie. It’s been over a year now and Ollie hasn’t returned to his old self. That’s not to say he’s wasting away or unhappy, he’s just taken a new role in life. He still hordes a couple of Abby’s old toys, but he’s let go of many others. He doesn’t need or seek Bea’s attention, but he also won’t snub her. He makes the occasional offering of a lick or runs with her at the park sometimes, but mostly he’s taken on a solitary nobility. He’ll still climb into my lap, still loves a good belly rub, but there’s a weight to his personality that was never there before.
What does this have to do with religion? Nothing at all really. It’s only the rituals our dogs have that remind us that things are sacred and simple on the surface, but muddy and knotted beneath. We love our dogs, like all dog owners, and we find meaning for ourselves in their upkeep. And wisdom in their habits.